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Cookworthy, Williamfree

  • Angus J. L. Winchester

Cookworthy, William (1705–1780), porcelain manufacturer and Quaker minister, was born on 12 April 1705, the eldest child of William Cookworthy (1670–1718), a Quaker serge maker of Kingsbridge, Devon, and his wife, Edith (d. 1759), daughter of John and Mary Debell of St Martin by Looe, Cornwall. After his father's death, Cookworthy's mother was left in severely straitened circumstances after the loss of money invested in South Sea stock. In 1720 the young Cookworthy began an apprenticeship with the Quaker apothecaries Timothy and Sylvanus Bevan of Plough Court, London, walking from Devon to save the coach fare. The Bevans recognized his outstanding skill and took him into partnership at the end of his apprenticeship—the firm of Bevans and Cookworthy, wholesale chemists and druggists, being established in Plymouth under Cookworthy's management in 1726. His principal customers were doctors and apothecaries in the three south-western counties and the naval fraternity in Plymouth.

On 12 February 1736 Cookworthy married Sarah, daughter of Peter and Elizabeth Berry of Fullerns, Somerset, at Taunton Friends' meeting-house. They had five daughters. Sarah Cookworthy died on 11 September 1745. His wife's death was a turning point in Cookworthy's life. In his grief he withdrew temporarily from business and spent several months in retirement at Looe. Thereafter, his brother Philip took over the day-to-day management of the business, leaving Cookworthy freer to devote his energies to his religious work and his china clay experiments.

Cookworthy was the first to recognize that the twin ingredients of Chinese porcelain, kaolin for the body and petuntse for the glaze, were to be found in the china clay and moorstone (or ‘growan’, as it was known locally) of the Cornish moors. His interest in the chemistry of porcelain can be traced to 1745, when he met the discoverer of china clay in Virginia. It was probably between then and 1748 that Cookworthy discovered the china clay and moorstone deposits on Tregonning Hill, Germoe parish, Cornwall. By 1758 his porcelain-making experiments had resulted in a successful firing of clay from Tregonning Hill, but it was the discovery of an abundant deposit of high-quality china clay and moorstone at Carloggas, St Stephen parish, near St Austell, that proved to be the turning point. Thomas Pitt (later Lord Camelford), the owner of the Carloggas estate, helped Cookworthy to obtain a patent to manufacture porcelain using the Cornish ingredients in 1768 and provided finance for his experimental work. In 1768 Cookworthy opened a porcelain factory at Coxside, near the quayside at Plymouth. It was a small concern with share capital of under £300, half provided by Cookworthy and other local men, and half by a group of Quakers from Bristol, where Cookworthy had been involved in a china works for several years. The market for the blue and white china produced at Plymouth included exports to America.

In 1770 the Plymouth factory closed, apparently because of difficulties with maintaining quality. The numerous pieces classed as seconds suggest that Cookworthy had been unable to acquire a sufficiently skilled workforce in Plymouth. The business was transferred to 15 Castle Green, Bristol, where porcelain was manufactured under Cookworthy's supervision until 1773, when he decided to sell his interest in the factory and his patent rights to Richard Champion, his business partner. Champion continued to make porcelain in Bristol until 1778, when—his capital spent—he closed the factory. He later sold Cookworthy's patent to a syndicate of Staffordshire potters, who exploited Cornish china clay for the production of bone china. True porcelain manufacture, pioneered by Cookworthy, virtually ceased in Britain with the closure of the Bristol works.

Cookworthy was also well known as a Quaker minister and religious thinker. He emerged from his period of retirement during his bereavement with strengthened faith; thereafter he adopted the traditional 'plain' dress and speech of the Quakers, though he continued to move in scientific and literary circles. Between 1745 and 1747 he took an unpopular stance, urging his Quaker neighbours in Plymouth not to compromise their pacifist principles by dealing in 'prize goods' from captured vessels. From that time he became an active Quaker minister, travelling widely in the three south-western counties, representing Devon Friends at the yearly meeting in London for the first time in 1748, and becoming the mainstay of Plymouth meeting.

Cookworthy believed firmly in the importance of the central Quaker doctrine: the power of the divine inner light operating on the human heart. This led him to explore beyond the Quaker fold to the writings of others who stressed the mystical side of religion. His publication in 1751 of a translation of Muralt's L'instinct divin as The Divine Instinct Recommended to Men was the prelude to translations of the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish visionary. He was perhaps attracted by Swedenborg's belief that personal relationships, particularly those of man and wife, survived beyond the grave. Cookworthy published The Doctrine of Life in 1763, the first of Swedenborg's works to appear in English, and collaborated with Thomas Hartley (d. 1784) in the translation of Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell (published 1778), accompanying Hartley on a visit to Swedenborg in London. That Cookworthy's faith was highly individual and could not be bound by the confines of Quaker orthodoxy is highlighted by an episode on his deathbed: he took bread and wine, inviting his daughters to join him, saying that he felt it his duty to follow the scriptural injunction despite the Quaker testimony against ritual sacraments.

Cookworthy was a polymath, more scholar than businessman, his reputation for absent-mindedness and his 'mild but intellectual countenance' (Selleck, 228) confirming the impression of a man absorbed in study. A linguist, he was fluent in Latin and French, and his circle of acquaintances was wide and extended well beyond fellow Quaker intellectuals such as John Fothergill to include such figures as John Smeaton, who lodged with him during the building of the Eddystone lighthouse, and Captain James Cook, who, with Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, dined with him before sailing from Plymouth in 1768. Cookworthy's willingness to embrace unorthodox beliefs, seen in his attraction to Swedenborg, was also visible in the scientific field. He firmly believed that divining rods could locate metallic lodes, and contributed an essay advocating their use to William Pryce's Mineralogia Cornubiensis (1778).

Cookworthy's scholarship drew comment from those who knew him. The naval officer John Jervis was reported as saying that no one could be in Cookworthy's company 'without being the wiser and better for it' (Selleck, 170). A young American who spent a whole day discussing politics, religion, and history with Cookworthy in 1776 found in him

the most sensible Learned kind Man I ever knew … an amazing Memory, excellent Delivery, and a Stile that we no where else meet with, catholic in the extreme, deep in Argument, meek, humble … in short the most refind and accomplished Man.

Morgan, 109–10

Cookworthy fell ill in May 1780 and died at his home in Notte Street, Plymouth, on 17 October 1780, aged seventy-five. He was buried in the Quaker burial-ground at Plymouth on 21 October.


  • A. D. Selleck, Cookworthy, 1705–80, and his circle (1978)
  • J. Penderill-Church, William Cookworthy, 1705–1780 (1972)
  • ‘Dictionary of Quaker biography’, RS Friends, Lond. [card index]
  • K. Morgan, ed., An American Quaker in the British Isles (1992)


  • Devon RO, chemical notebook
  • BL, letters to Lord Camelford, Add. MS 69323
  • Swedenborg Society, Swedenborg House, London, letters


  • J. Opie, cartoon, 1779, repro. in Penderill-Church, William Cookworthy
  • J. Opie, oils, 1779, City Art Gallery, Plymouth
  • C. Fox, drawing (after a cartoon by Opie), repro. in Selleck, Cookworthy … and his circle
  • attrib. J. Opie, pencil drawing, City Art Gallery, Plymouth
  • engraving, repro. in Bristol and Frenchay Monthly Meeting of Society of Friends, album, vol. 1, p. 32
  • silhouette, RS Friends, Lond.
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Religious Society of Friends, London